In the News
Monday, 19 October 2009
I rise today to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Re-registration of Providers adn Other Measures) Bill 2009. I want to continue on from what the member for Forde was saying in relation to the importance of this sector to the Australian economy. We know that it is the third-largest export industry for Australia. This is a fantastic Australian success story. In 2008 it brought in about $15.4 billion. It employs many hundreds of thousands of people. It is vital that we continue to allow such an important sector to achieve and do so much for our economy.
The government’s legislation, as it is proposed, seeks to do a number of things in addressing many of the problems that all of us here have been aware of in recent times. Particularly, it enables a re-registration process for all institutions that are currently registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students. It looks at requiring providers to publish the names of education agents who represent them and promote their education services. I want to address those two things separately.
Firstly, I record my support for the provisions which require providers to publish the names of education agents. I think this is a widely supported provision and it will go some way towards enabling a better outcome where unscrupulous operators, or people who have engaged in unethical behaviour in relation to overseas students, have been caught in that activity. That is one way of ensuring more transparency and of limiting the possibility for problems. Of course, there are other ways that the industry itself suggests and that we may consider at a future time.
Secondly, I want to raise an issue in relation to the other main provision of this bill, which is that it will enable a reregistration of all institutions that are currently registered on the Commonwealth register. That is one way of addressing the problems that have arisen in the public domain. The argument is that there have been some alarming allegations made against some private education providers. For instance, students who have complied with all their requirements have been forced to pay additional fees over and above their agreed payments or risk having their visas revoked. Of course, that is unacceptable. However, I want to note in this place that that is not the practice of most of the providers of private education. In fact, most of those fine institutions have been responsible for the growth in this sector of the economy and have exported a fine quality product to overseas students. It has been a wonderful success story in Australia.
It is also important to note that there are already significant regulatory mechanisms in place. It is very difficult to establish a private education facility, as perhaps it ought to be. There are substantial state and federal requirements to ensure that it is a rigorous and difficult thing to do. When passing this legislation, we should consider not burdening those very successful enterprises that have met substantial regulatory requirements with going through a process where they revisit issues that they have already addressed in a substantial way. That is the feedback that I get from many of the private education providers who have been in business a long time. There is no question about their bona fides. But there is a question regularly asked of them by state and federal authorities, and they answer that question in a proven, acceptable and demonstrable way. Their reputations are not in question in relation to the allegations that are now in the public domain.
I want to caution that perhaps the process by which this reregistration will be conducted, particularly by the regulation, should be carefully considered and that an extra compliance burden not be placed on those completely ethical and properly regulated businesses that have conducted themselves in a proper fashion for a long time—and that is most of the sector. We have some wonderful stories about this sector. The businesses that have behaved ethically and built very successful education businesses are the custodians of our reputation internationally.
We know that education is an enabler; it is something that lifts people out of their situation. In our region, education is making a great difference to the vast number of people who still do not enjoy the standard of living that we do here in Australia. Exporting education is a great and powerful enabler for our region. It is something that enhances Australia’s reputation and role within our region and it has the capacity to do a great deal of good for our future relations with such important neighbours and trading partners. So it is important that we do not damage the reputation of this important sector by acting injudiciously. I would not suggest here today that that is the intention of the government. Rather, I simply say that, perhaps in our rush to respond to alarming situations, there are unintended consequences of that rush.
Legislating is not always necessarily the best answer to a problem like this, particularly when you look at peak bodies like the Australian Council for Private Education and Training. They represent about 1,119 organisations around Australia. Membership of their body requires a certain standard and a certain set of ethics and that, in effect, allows for self-regulation and that limits the capacity for problems and fraud. Some of the members opposite have spoken about self-regulation. Self-regulation can be a much more effective response in many instances than government legislation. In relation to these problems, the reality is that whatever legislation you pass, you still require a great deal of industry input of self-regulation to occur. We ought to be encouraging a system of self-regulation.
Some of the private providers that came to see me spoke of the mechanisms they use when one of their private institutions fails or may not be able to meet the commitments it has made to overseas students who have arrived here to study. Of course, this is the critical area. With the best will or the best intentions in the world, an institution may not be able to meet its commitments. An insurance scheme put together by a peak body could provide the capacity for other institutions to share the load of the member or institution that is unable to meet its commitments and could therefore take on the overseas students and so alleviate the problem. It is that kind of practical and considered industry specific solution that we ought to consider as an alternative in helping to deal with this situation. The legislation before us will deal with a very different situation—that is, people who behave unethically and do not met their commitments to overseas students. The legislation is designed to protect students who can often be vulnerable or who are unable to protect themselves—and that intention is a good thing.
In summing up that section of the provisions, I caution that we ought to very carefully ensure that the reregistration process does not inadvertently add continual and extra pressure on institutions that go through very rigorous processes to meet their accreditation at both the state and federal levels.
The other provisions of this bill are quite important. They go a long way towards alleviating many of the serious problems which have arisen in recent times. Fraudulent practices can cause irreparable damage to this vital industry for Australia. It is important that we act to send a signal to those people who would engage in fraudulent practices that they will not be accepted and that they will not be able to continue that activity.
As an opposition, we have great concerns that this legislation goes the entire way in relation to these matters. The coalition has proposed amendments, and I record my support for those amendments because there needs to be a tightening up to prevent students being duped by incompetent or dishonest providers. Some of these are high-quality amendments and I recommend them to the government. We have introduced, for example, an amendment aimed at ensuring that regulatory bodies follow a risk management approach when determining the reregistration of providers. This is what I have been speaking about. This risk management system would mean that you look at the experience with the already registered entities—that is, those which have been in operation for a substantial period and have a record of success, being long-term viable businesses that employ thousands of people and potentially educate thousands of students. There ought not be a particular burden or question asked of those successful enterprises, which are not in question.
We really believe risk management in the approach to the implementation of this legislation is absolutely vital. As I have spoken about, there are already significant hurdles in place for many colleges and education facilities. Therefore, that amendment is a high-quality amendment. I do not think any government, of any persuasion, should stand and say, ‘We are the arbiters of all things that are good in legislative terms or legislative instruments.’ Indeed, when oppositions or other parties propose sensible and common-sense amendments, governments ought to consider those amendments with a view to improving legislation. I think that a risk management approach in reregistration is simply common sense and good policy that ought to be adopted by any government.
Looking at some of the other amendments that we are proposing, it is also critical that education agents are providing reliable and up-to-date information to prospective students. We have proposed that improved services be provided by education agents and a requirement that education agents will undertake qualified training. Once again, this is a sensible amendment. As a result, more accurate information will be given to prospective students, ensuring that their education experience in Australia is in line with their expectations. Again, this is a sensible amendment which is proactive and positive and will improve this proposed legislation. Indeed, the provision in the bill requiring the publication of the names of education agents is a good provision and should be supported. Equally, I accept that our proposed amendment that they undergo qualified training is also a good proposal which ought to be seriously considered and will improve the integrity of this legislation.
The third area of concern which we have as an opposition is the default fund for reimbursing overseas students if their provider ceases operation. This fund reimburses the student when the fund manager is unable to secure a suitable alternative training place for the student. Looking at how many recent provider closures there have been, this fund is obviously at a level where it must be fairly close to some sort of collapse. Recently, there has been a spate of very significant collapses, of private closures. They have been well publicised and there is an issue in relation to this fund. We have sought some more amendments that seek to improve the accountability and transparency of this fund—something I widely support. Under our amendment, the fund manager would be required to provide the minister with a written report in each instance of provider default where a claim is made on the fund. The minister would then have 30 days to table this in parliament. In terms of accountability and transparency, that is a good amendment. Thinking about how we could practically deal with the problems that come from provider collapses, then of course an assurance fund is one practical way of ensuring that we deal with the on-the-ground problems created when a provider collapses.
Without labouring the point too many times today, I really want to record my full support for this important sector of the Australian economy. This is our third biggest export area. It provides $15.8 billion to the Australian economy. The experience is overwhelmingly positive with the major number of private education providers in Australia for overseas students being ethical and conducting themselves to a high standard, promoting a good quality product that is in demand by our neighbours. Many of our neighbours choose to educate their children here because of the quality of the products that Australian institutions are offering.
The private education sector for overseas students is a great Australian success story. I feel that this legislation will allow for those institutions which are behaving fraudulently or unethically to be further limited. That is a good objective. However, in doing so, I would caution the government in reiterating that it ought to think carefully about how that is achieved. The legislation ought not place extra burdens upon those very ethical and properly conducted operators who have been in business for many years and provide good products. It ought to take a risk management approach and consider the opposition’s amendments in the spirit in which they are intended.
The Rudd Government is proposing mandatory internet filtering which could have serious implications for the speed and cost of online services in Australia.
Interestingly, all Parliament House staff including Members and Senators can currently opt-in to have their own work computers filtered.
Given the Rudd Government is considering imposing mandatory filters for all Australian internet users, I have sought from the Speaker of the House of Representatives details about how many Parliament House computer users, especially Government Members and staff, have chosen to opt-in for this House of Representatives voluntarily filtering scheme.
It will be interesting to see how many Members Senators & staff of the Rudd Government has chosen to voluntarily filter their own internet, when they are proposing a mandatory filter for all Australians. I suspect very few indeed...
See below my Questions to the Speaker on Hansard.
Mr Hawke (Mitchell) to ask the Speaker:
How many (a) Members, (b) Senators, (c) ministerial staff, and (d) Members’ and Senators’ staff, are eligible to opt for voluntary internet content filtering.
How many departmental staff, and other employees who work in Parliament House, are eligible to voluntarily have their internet content filtered.
How many (a) Ministers, (b) Members, (c) Senators, (d) ministerial staff, and (e) Members’ and Senators’ staff, have opted to have internet content filtering.
How many of those in parts (3) (b) to (e) are with the Government.
Has the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy opted to have voluntary internet filtering.
How many staff members of the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy have opted to have voluntary internet filtering.
- How does the default filtering system for Parliamentary and departmental networks differ from voluntary internet content filtering.
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (4.00 pm)—Mr Speaker, I seek leave to make a personal explanation.
The SPEAKER—Does the member claim to have been misrepresented?
Mr HAWKE—I do, Mr Speaker.
The SPEAKER—Please proceed.
Mr HAWKE—During question time, the Minister for Social Inclusion, not being very socially inclusive, sought to suggest that I made false claims about the Baulkham Hills North Public School in relation to Building the Education Revolution funding. I did no such thing and, indeed, I quote the words of the Baulkham Hills North Public School P&C president who said that, in accepting the funding for a much needed hall, ‘strongly rejected being bullied into accepting a design that will never meet the needs of the school and is a waste of taxpayers money’.
The SPEAKER—Order! The member will resume his seat.
Mr HAWKE—I seek leave to table the email from the Baulkham Hills North Public School P&C president.
Leave not granted.
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (2.56 pm)—My question is to the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Minister for Education and the Minister for—ahem—Social Inclusion.
Honourable members interjecting—
Mr HAWKE—Well, I didn’t give her that title!
The SPEAKER—Order! The member will get to his question.
Mr HAWKE—I refer the minister to the fact that, before the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program was announced in February, schools in New South Wales were charged $285,000 to construct a seven-core modular library. Minister, considering the Annangrove Public School in my electorate is now being charged $727,000 for the same library under the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program and already has a functioning library, and that the P&C wanted a hall built instead, does the minister maintain that this represents value for money?
Opposition members interjecting—
The SPEAKER—Order! The question has been put, and then we have interjections on blank air, even before the question has started to be responded to. Members on my left will remain quiet.
Ms GILLARD (Lalor—Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion)—I thank the member for Mitchell for his question. I think it is a bit unfortunate that he cannot say the words ‘social inclusion’ without choking, because I would have thought that kind of fair and decent treatment of all Australians ought to be an objective shared by all members of the House. Clearly I am wrong about that. The member for Mitchell raises with me the question of building costs under the Building the Education Revolution program. The member for Mitchell has raised this with me in the past in relation to the Baulkham Hills school in his electorate, which he raised in this parliament. What he raised at that time was an assertion that the school was being asked to accept a new hall rather than an extension to an existing hall. In making that claim in this parliament, the member for Mitchell was wrong. Having investigated the matter, of course the school is not having its hall pulled down. The proposal is to have the existing hall back-converted to provide two classrooms and to have a new hall built.
Ms Julie Bishop—Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This may have been an answer to a previous question. We are asking about Annangrove Public School, and I would ask the minister to be brought back to this question.
The SPEAKER—The Deputy Leader of the Opposition will resume her seat. The Deputy Prime Minister is responding to the question.
Ms GILLARD—I was asked about matters relating to building costs under the Building the Education Revolution program. I am simply making it clear to the member for Mitchell—who I assume is interested in schools in his electorate and, consequently, would be interested in the answer—that the assertion that he made in this parliament about Baulkham Hills High School is not correct. The member has come in today and made an assertion about another school in his electorate. I am sure I would be forgiven for making the remark, given that the current average of the member for Mitchell for raising these matters accurately in this parliament is zero. I will look at the matter he has raised with me, test whether or not it is ccurate and respond to it—but, of course, the member for Mitchell made an inaccurate statement in this parliament last time he questioned me. I will test whether or not his current claims are accurate. On the basis of his track record, one needs to be very sceptical about the things said by the member for Mitchell in this place.
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (2.38 pm)—My question is to the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister for Education and Minister for Social Inclusion. I refer the minister to the Baulkham Hills North Public School, in my electorate, which was awarded $2.45 million— Government members interjecting—
Mr HAWKE—You can explain it to me later, Albo.
The SPEAKER—The Leader of the House will come to order!
Mr HAWKE—for a new hall under the government’s Building the Education Revolution program. Minister, why is it, after months of discussions to extend the existing hall, this school is being forced to accept a new hall, which only provides an extra 30 square metres of floor space? This would seat, at most, an extra 50 students. Does the minister accept that spending an extra $2.45 million—or about $81,500 per square metre, to seat 200 out of 650 students—is value for money?
Ms GILLARD (Lalor—Deputy Prime Minister)—I thank the member for Mitchell for his question. I thank him for so clearly going through my portfolio titles. If he wants a summary, we of course stand for fairness and decency in education and at work. You stand for neither—neither fairness nor decency. That was made very clear by the Leader of the Opposition on the weekend, and it is made clear every day by your shadow minister through his absence of policies.
Mr Pyne—Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The minister was asked a very clear question about value for money and I would ask you to draw her to the question.
The SPEAKER—The Deputy Prime Minister is responding to the question. Perhaps a little less debate would be helpful. The Deputy Prime Minister has the call.
Ms GILLARD—The member for Mitchell raises with me a Building the Education Revolution project in his electorate. There are 41 schools in his electorate. They have been awarded 93 projects at a cost of just over $81 million. I think it is to be regretted that he opposes each and every one of those projects in each and every one of his 41 schools. He has raised with me the details of an individual project. Obviously I would need to check the assertions in his question—I have found out, by dint of long experience, that most of the questions raised by the opposition do not stand up to any scrutiny when the claims are held up to the light. But I will look at the assertion that the member for Mitchell has made and will come back to him about the matter. I trust that, in the same spirit, he will go back to each of his 41 schools and explain to them that he is opposed to expenditure in those schools, he is opposed to the new projects, he is opposed to assistance to schools in 9,500 schools around the nation and he is opposed to the local jobs that it will support.
Mrs Bronwyn Bishop—On a number of occasions, the Deputy Prime Minister has promised to come back to the House. I would ask that she come back before the end of question time, for once.